Congo halts rebel offensive as pressure piles on Kabila to hold talks

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The Independent Online

In the first hint that President Laurent Kabila may be ready to bow to pressure for an end to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of his military officials yesterday called an abrupt halt to a month-old military offensive against rebels in the north-west of the country.

In the first hint that President Laurent Kabila may be ready to bow to pressure for an end to the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of his military officials yesterday called an abrupt halt to a month-old military offensive against rebels in the north-west of the country.

Colonel David Kokolo's announcement on state television that government troops had halted their river offensive innorthern Equateur province, against the Ugandan-backed Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), came as regional leaders and parties in the war prepared to meet on Monday in the Zambian capital, Lusaka.

President Kabila, who has been at war with rebel groups in the former Zaire since August 1998, has resisted peace-making attempts including a year-old ceasefire proposal and the deployment of 5,500 United Nations peacekeepers. However, diplomats believe he may be ready to bow to pressure from his overstretched allies - Zimbabwe, Namibia and Angola - to move to the negotiating table.

Col Kokolo yesterday denied a claim from the MLC that it had killed 800 government soldiers and sunk three of their river boats in northern Equateur on Thursday, arguing instead that the government offensive had successfully repelled the rebels to positions they held before last year's unsuccessful Lusaka ceasefire plan.

He said: "The president has decided to stop the operations of legitimate defence at Dongo, on the Oubangi river, where they must maintain a defensive position from today in order to observe the ceasefire."

Heavy fighting in Equateur has prompted at least 60,000 people to flee to the neighbouring Republic of Congo and some 6,000 people to the Central African Republic, according to humanitarian agencies.

There were also indications yesterday that President Kabila has bowed to pressure from the UN to allow its special investigator for human rights, Roberto Garreton, to return to the Democratic Republic of Congo next week. Mr Garreton was last year declared persona non-grata in the country for denouncing massacres by Kabila's men during their 1997 offensive against Zaire's then dictator, Mobuto Sese Seko.

Officials in Lusaka yesterday said the Zambian president, Frederick Chiluba, had secured assurances that all major players in the conflict - President Kabila, as well as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda - will attend Monday's meeting. Uganda and Rwanda back different rebel groups in the conflict and have clashed several times in the diamond-trading centre, Kisangani.

Angola, Namibia and, especially, Zimbabwe, have spent millions of pounds on propping up President Kabila.

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